The use of African American stereotypes in marketing has persisted for centuries. Let’s hope more companies take action.

By Betty Gold
June 18, 2020
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This month, many brands have been rightfully reflecting on how their own names, messaging, and iconography have perpetuated (and even benefitted from) implicit and systemic racism in America. These considerations have been brought to the forefront during our nationwide reckoning on race—a movement aimed at social justice and ending inequality for Black people—following the death of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and many others.

This Wednesday, Quaker Oats (owned by PepsiCo) announced that it will be retiring the 130-year-old Aunt Jemima brand and logo. “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype," Kristin Kroepfl, the VP and CMO of Quaker Foods North America, said in a press release cited by CNBC. “As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations."

On Aunt Jemima’s website, it states that the character of Aunt Jemima was first "brought to life" by Nancy Green, a “storyteller, cook, and missionary worker.” In actuality, Green was born into slavery in 1834 in Kentucky; R.T. Davis (which owned the brand at the time) opted to use her as a representation of the brand after the former owners heard the name Aunt Jemima in a popular minstrel show.

Quaker will continue making pancake mix and syrup, but it plans to come up with a new name and image for the same products, said to be released this fall.

The branding is “a retrograde image of Black womanhood on store shelves," Riché Richardson, a Cornell University associate professor, said on the Today show this Wednesday. “It’s an image that harkens back to the antebellum plantation... Aunt Jemima is that kind of stereotype that is premised on this idea of Black inferiority and otherness.”

Several hours after the Aunt Jemima announcement, Mars Inc., which owns Uncle Ben’s, made its own announcement. “As we listen to the voices of consumers, especially in the Black community, and to the voices of our Associates worldwide, we recognize that now is the right time to evolve the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity, which we will do.” Adding that they “don’t yet know what the exact changes or timing will be, but we are evaluating all possibilities.”

Indeed, the white-owned brand has featured a Black man named Frank Brown, who never had anything to do with the rice products, on its packaging since 1946. Another incredibly racist oversight is the fact that "Uncle" was used as a way to refer to both freed and enslaved Black people by white Southerners (who refused to refer to them with titles like "mister.") As with Aunt Jemima, Mars will continue to made rice products under another brand name.

ConAgra Brands, the maker of Mrs. Butterworth’s pancake syrup, has also released its own statement saying the company will begin a “complete brand and package review.” Its racist branding has perpetuated the “mammy” stereotype, using a caricature of a curvy Black woman as both its bottle’s shape and iconography. And later on Wednesday, B&G Foods Inc., the parent company of Cream of Wheat, announced that it, too, was conducting a review of its packaging.

Care to have a non-racist breakfast? Take some advice from the excellent video by singer Kirby below, and learn where you can donate to the Black Lives Matter movement here.